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Ancient Macedonian: A Hellenic language

The historical record, as confirmed by numerous scholars, irrefutably confirms that ancient Macedonian was a Hellenic language

The Pella Curse Tablet

Robin Lane Fox of Oxford University, Paul Kagan of Yale University, Paul Cartledge of Cambridge University and Kathleen M. Coleman of Harvard University are just four of the hundreds of professors who teach us that the ancient Macedonian language was a Greek dialect. John Van Antwerp Fine best summarizes the consensus among historians in his book “The Ancient Greeks – A Critical History” when he states that “Modern scholarship, after many generations of argument, now almost unanimously recognizes them [The Macedonians] as Greeks”. In this article, we will be comprehensively reviewing almost every surviving fragment of the ancient Macedonian language in order to illuminate as to why historians are so certain that it was a form of Greek.

Herodotus, the father of history

Genealogy

The earliest indication that the Ancient Greeks noted similarities between their various dialects and Ancient Macedonian is the genealogy of Hesiod of Boetia, who wrote between 750 and 650 BC. He stated that Macedon, the ancestor of the Macedonians, was a grandson of Hellen, the common ancestor of all the Greeks and from whom their name “Hellenes” was derived. Macedon was also a cousin of Dorous, Xouthus and Aeolus, the three mythological figures represented the Dorian, Ionian and Aeolian branches of Greek, and therefore the implication is that, as a close relative and a descendant of Hellen, Macedonian shared a common ancestry and was related to these three forms of Ancient Greek. To quote one of the most eminent scholars of Macedonian history, N.G.L Hammond, “Hesiod would not have recorded this relationship unless he had believed, probably in the seventh century, that the Macedones were a Greek speaking people.”

Approximately two centuries later, Hellanicus altered the relationship between Macedon and Aeolus and framed Macedon as a son of Aeolus as opposed to a cousin. This would signify that Macedonian was not merely a relative of the three major Greek dialects but a form of one of them. Specifically, it was an Aeolic dialect. The Cambridge Ancient History states that Hellanicus “would not have done so (made this alteration) unless he supposed the Macedones to be speakers of some form of Aeolic Greek.”

It is worth noting that “The Father of History” seemingly disagreed with Hellanicus and implies that the Macedonians were Doric speakers as opposed to Aeolic. He testifies that the Macedonians were part of the Dorian migration into Greece, though they stayed behind in Macedonia as opposed to advancing deeper into the Greek mainland. His exact words are “The Pelasgian race has never yet left its home; the Hellenic has wandered often and far…it settled about Pindus in the territory called Macedonian; from there again it migrated to Dryopia, and at last came from Dryopia into the Peloponnese, where it took the name of Dorian”. From this alone we can see that it is not so much a question as to whether ancient Macedonian was related to Ancient Greek, the only real uncertainty is the exact form of Ancient Greek spoken by the Macedonians.

Literary Evidence

Turning attention away from the origin of ancient Macedonian and focusing on testimonies about the language itself, one of the earliest confirmations that the language was a form of Greek comes from a 5th century piece of Attic comedy named “Macedonians.” This was a work by the Athenian poet Strattis in which a Macedonian speaks and states “κέστραν μὲν ὔμμες ὡττικοὶ κικλήσκετε.” In the words of Johannes Engels: “[i]n this passage, a stranger speaks some words in a rural and unpolished dialect that some scholars explain as a comic persiflage of Ancient Macedonian.” The significance of this Macedonian stranger speaking a rural form of Greek is that Attic comedy generally preserved the speaking patterns of its characters.

According to Kelly L. Wrenhaven, non-Greeks tended to “merely mutter foreign-sounding gibberish” whilst others would speak a fusion of Attic Greek and their native tongue, such as a character in Hipponax who mixes Greek with Lydian and Phyrgian. Others would make “frequent grammatical errors” and have “problems using the correct gender and case.” This is not the treatment given to the Macedonian, who simply speaks a grammatically correct dialect of Greek and not a barbarian tongue. This is very much in line with the treatment given to non-Athenian Greeks in Attic comedy who would speak in their own dialect of Greek as opposed to Attic. Sticking with the example of Hipponax, he presented some Spartans singing about “their own exploits during the Persian Wars in Doric dialect.” We can therefore conclude that the rural Greek spoken by the Macedonian reflects Macedonian speech or at least the Athenian perception of it.

Sticking with literary evidence and turning back to the previously mentioned Herodotus, he records a speech between the Persian Mardonius and his king Xerxes I. Mardonius had recently undertaken some reconnaissance in Greece and twice mentioned that he visited Macedonia as part of his observation of the Greek states. His exact words are “I marched as far as Macedonia and almost to Athens itself” and “when I marched as far as the land of Macedonia.” Mardonius concludes that “since they [the Greeks] speak the same language, they should end their disputes.” The implication is therefore that since he visited the Macedonians, they are included in the Greeks who he observed to speak the same language.

Moving into the lifetime and the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus states that the Macedonian “cruelty” towards the Branchidae “could not be checked by community of language or the draped olive branches and prayers.” The Branchidae were Greeks of Asia Minor and consequently the Macedonians must have been speakers of Greek if they shared a “community of language” with them. An even more important passage from Curtius is the trial of Philotas. Alexander informs Philotas that “[t]he Macedonians are to be your judges. I ask whether you intend to use their native language?” Philotas’ response is that “Besides the Macedonians there are many present who, I think, will more easily understand what I shall say if I use the same language which you have employed.”

The meaning behind Philotas’ words is that the non-Macedonian Greeks will understand him better if he speaks in Attic Greek as opposed to the Macedonian dialect.It is therefore extremely significant that Philotas’ exact words are that the Greeks will “more easily understand” and this is not something that has been corrupted by translation as the original Latin reads “facilius percepturos.” If Macedonian was not related to Greek then Philotas would have presumably stated that the Greeks “would not understand”. The inference of “more easily understand” according to Edward Anson is that that “Macedonian speech was not incomprehensible to non-Macedonians, just on occasion difficult to understand.” It was not unheard of for Ancient Greeks to have difficulty understanding one another, as seen in Thucydides, where Aetolian is labelled “a most strange language.” Even in modern times, an Athenian would understand a Cretan or Cypriot “more easily” if they spoke in Standard Modern Greek as opposed to their native dialect.

The interpretation that this passage is evidence that Macedonian was related to Greek is strengthened by Curtius’ earlier statement regarding the Macedonians and the Branchidae. Curtius would be contradicting himself within the space of a few pages if he initially stated that the Macedonians shared “community of language” with the Greeks then proceeding to imply that Macedonian was completely unintelligible to a Greek speaker. It is noteworthy that whilst Philotas was concerned about the capacity of the Greeks to understand his every word in Macedonian, he expressed no doubt about the Macedonians’ ability to understand Attic Greek. Their comprehension of his speech was actually more important than that of the other Greeks as they were the ones passing judgement. This therefore suggests that Attic Greek was understood by the Macedonians.

Macedonians certainly had a larger exposure to Attic Greek than other Greeks had to Macedonians due to the status of Attic Greek in the Macedonian court. Attic Greek was presumably easy for a Macedonian to understand with some exposure due to its close proximity with their native tongue. Further evidence that the Macedonians spoke and understood standard Greek would be the fact that Plutarch reveals that 30,000 Persian troops were to be taught the Greek language for service in Alexander’s army. There would be little point in teaching the Persians Greek if the language was not spoken by the bulk of Alexander’s army.

The ancient Macedonian language also appears in Plutarch’s “Greek Life of Alexander” in which Alexander “[c]alled out in Macedonian speech” for his bodyguards. This passage is held in high regard by FYROM nationalists as they argue that Alexander used Macedonian, a language supposedly unrelated to Greek, on this occasion so that the Greeks would not understand his call for help. This interpretation fails instantly due to the simple fact that Alexander was requesting help against Cleitus, a fellow Macedonian. No non-Macedonian Greeks were involved in the matter and Cleitus obviously understood Alexander’s call for assistance. It would be expected that Alexander would command his guards in his native dialect, just as King Leonidas obviously commanded his troops in Spartan and not Attic Greek. In the original Greek, the exact phrases used for speaking Macedonian are “ἀνεβόα Μακεδονιστὶ” and “Μακεδονιστὶ τῇ φωνῇ”. We find other forms of Greek being assigned the “ιστί” suffix in antiquity and therefore this is no indication from these passages that Alexander was speaking a non-Greek language: for example, “Μεγαριστί” speaking “in the Megarian dialect,” Δωριστὶ φωνῇ “in the Doric speech.”

According to David Grant, “Hellenistic Koine…became known as ‘Macedonian’ to the Greeks. From this we can conclude that just because someone was speaking Macedonian in ancient times, it does not mean that they were not speaking a form of Greek. Hellenistic Koine was certainly a version of the Greek language.

Onomastics

In terms of personal names, the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names attests that the nine most popular names in Macedon were Dionysios, Alexandros, Apollonios, Posidippos, Demetrios, Philippos, Artemidoros, Heracleides and Bithys. Johannels Engels writes that “apart from Bithys, these are all clearly Greek names.” Bithys is thought to be a Thracian name, as it is known that both Thracians and Illyrians lived on the borders of Macedon, ruled by the Macedonians proper who were concentrated in the south. Almost all of the Macedonians bore Greek names and this demonstrates that both the upper class and the peasantry spoke the Greek language. This was the conclusion reached by Otto Hoffman, who wrote in 1906, long before the emergence of the modern dispute between Greece and FYROM, “[w]hoever does not consider the Macedonians as Greeks must also conclude that by the 6th and 5th centuries BC the Macedonians had completely given up the original names of their nation – without any need to do so – and taken Greek names in order to demonstrate their admiration for Greek civilization.” It is not reasonable to suggest that the Macedonian peasantry, who had little to no contact with their Greek neighbors, would have given their children Greek names unless these names reflected their native language and culture.

The Priene Inscription, which clearly reads Alexandros

It is worth briefly noting that FYROM propagandists believe that Alexander the Great and his father Phillip II were called “Aleksanar” and “Filip” in their native Macedonian tongue. Such historically ignorant assertions are barely even worth dwelling on but for the fact that it is easily disproved. In his “Greek Questions”, Plutarch states that the Macedonians say “Βίλιππος” as opposed to the usual Greek “Φίλιππος.” The Greek masculine suffix -ος was therefore retained in the Macedonian pronouncement of Phillip, the only difference was that Φ was pronounced as Β in the Macedonian dialect. Both Philippos and Alexandros are attested in coinage and inscriptions such as the Priene Inscriptions. Furthermore, in Arrian, Darius’ Queen mistakes Alexander’s best friend Hephaestion for Alexander” “[t]he Queen withdrew in profound embarrassment, but Alexander merely remarked that her error was of no account, for Hephaestion too, was an Alexander – a ‘protector of men’.” This is irrefutable evidence that Alexander’s name meant “protector of men” in his native language. This is exactly the meaning of Alexandros in Ancient Greek. The proposed name of “Aleksandar” certainly does not have this meaning in Slavic.

Whilst on the topic of onomastics, Ian Worthington writes that “[t]he names of the months, the names of the people and (especially significant) the names of the towns were all Greek.” Many Macedonian months were shared with other Greek states who used the same name for them as the Macedonians. Examples include “Ἀπελλαῖος” which was also a Dorian month, “Αὐδναῖος” and “Ὑπερβερεταῖος” which were also Cretan months, “Ἀρτεμίσιος” which was shared with the Spartans, “Λώιος” which was an Aetolian, Boeotian and Thessalian month, and “Πάνημος” which was also an Epidaurian, Miletian, Samian and Corinthian month. An example of a uniquely Macedonian month is “Περίτιος” from “περιπέτεια” which was a “Macedonia Celebration” according to Hesychius of Alexandria. This word has the literal meaning in ancient Greek of “a sudden change of condition or fortune” and was likely coined within the ancient Macedonian language itself given that it was a uniquely Macedonian celebration.

Worthington states that it is “especially significant” that the Macedonian toponyms are Greek as the Macedonians would have no doubt named their locale long before they supposedly began imitating the language of their Greek neighbours. Firstly, the name of the Macedonians themselves is Greek. According to Nigel Wilson, Macedonia “took its name from a tribe of tall Greek-speaking people, the Makednoi.” The Ancient Greek word “μακεδνός” is used by Homer in the Odyssey and has the meaning of “tall / taper.” The word is related to the Modern Greek adjective “μήκος” meaning “length.” According to the Ancient Greek geographer Strabo, Macedonia’s previous name was “Ἠμαθία” and yet again, the etymology here is Greek. “Ἠμαθόεις” is attested in Homer as meaning “sandy” and other Macedonian place names also confirm that the people who named these locations were Greek speakers. The capital city “Πέλλα” means stone in ancient Greek and “λείβηθρον,” a location found at the Helicon river, has the meaning in Greek of a “wet country or place.”

Glossaries

Perhaps the strongest evidence that ancient Macedonian was a form of Greek comes from Hesychius of Alexander, who compiled a list of unusual or obscure Greek words, including over 100 which he stated to be Macedonian. These words were unique to the Macedonians and it is therefore significant that the majority of them show a Greek root. To quote the linguist Carlos Quiles: “[m]ost of these are confidently identifiable as Greek” and the few that are not are thought to be loan words from the neighbors of the Macedonians, the Illyrians and Thracians. This is evident by Paul Cartledge’s statement that “the local Macedonian dialect was so interlarded with non-Greek (especially Illyrian) linguistic forms.”

Evidence of the Greek foundation of the language is the word “ἀργιόπους” which was ancient Macedonian for “Eagle”. This is a compound of two ancient Greek words “άργιος” meaning “fast / white” and “πους” meaning “foot.” The standard Greek word for eagle was and is “αετός” and therefore the Greek rooted Macedonian word was evidently not a borrowing from Attic. Another ancient Macedonian word clearly crafted from two ancient Greek compounds is “κἄγχαρμον” meaning “having the lance up.” The etymology of this word in ancient Greek is clear: “άνω” meant “up” in ancient Greek and “χάρμη” meant “spear head.”

Ancient Macedonian words generally share a clear resemblance to neighboring dialects, such as the word “ταγός” meaning “leader / lord.” The exact same word is found in Aeolic Greek, whilst the Doric Greek form was “βαγός.” We can therefore rule out wholesale borrowings from Attic Greek, which was the closest thing to a “Lingua Franca” at the time. Many ancient Macedonian words have equivalents in modern Greek and bear absolutely no resemblance to the language spoken in FYROM. Below is a comparison between ancient Macedonian, ancient Greek, modern Greek, FYROMian and Bulgarian:

Hesychius is not the only source for ancient Macedonian words; some have been retained through literary testimonies. For example, Strabo writes that “[a]mong the Thesprotians and the Molossians old women are called “peliai” and old men “pelioi,” as is also the case among the Macedonians.” The Thesprotians and Molossians were both Greek speakers, and it is noteworthy that the Macedonians not only use the same root for these words but also the same suffixes for masculine and feminine plural nouns.

Macedonian may be argued to have been similar to the Greek spoken by the Molossians as according to Plutarch, King Phyrrhus sent several of his troops into the Macedonian army “pretending to be Macedonians.” This charade would not have been possible if there were significant differences in their speech.

Epigraphy

In terms of epigraphy, almost all of the inscriptions discovered in ancient Macedonia are in Attic Greek. This is an obstacle to discovering more about the ancient Macedonian language, as it would be foolish to imply that Attic Greek was the native tongue of the Macedonians. That having been said, it is noteworthy that there is not a single inscription found within the borders of the Macedon kingdom or indeed the vast Macedonian Empire that could be forwarded as evidence for the existence of a Macedonian language distinct from Greek.

In antiquity, non-Greek people including the Lydians, Phrygians, Thracians, Iberians and Gauls all used the Greek alphabet to make inscriptions in their own language. None of these groups were even as remotely significant as the Macedonians, and yet still managed to leave traces of their languages behind. It is therefore unthinkable that the Macedonians who conquered and ruled all the way from Greece to India would not have left some trace of their hypothetical non-Greek language behind.

There are a handful of inscriptions unearthed in Macedon which are believed to be written in ancient Macedonian, and far from proving the existence of an independent Macedonian language, these discoveries reflect that the Macedonians spoke a Doric Greek dialect. The most notable of these is “The Pella Curse Tablet” (pictured above). As the name would imply this was discovered in Pella, the ancient capital of Macedon. It was found at a common burial, which would indicate that it is reflective of the everyday language of the Macedonians and not the Attic speaking elites. James L O’Neil of Sidney University analyzed the tablet and writes:

“The curse tablet can definitely be seen to be in some form of West Greek, with forms corresponding to Doric and Aeolic dialects, but quite clear differing from Attic-Ionic. It does seem in its use of the form Δαιμοσι to be distinct from either of the known West Greek dialects spoken in the areas to the south of Macedon, Thessalian and Northwest Greek. So it seems unlikely that its use at Pella is due to the migration of an individual from the areas immediately In the south of Macedon or to the adoption of one of the dialects spoken in those areas by a Macedonian native. On the other hand, the form άνορόξασα, with its omicron in place of the regular upsilon. does have parallels with attested Macedonian glosses and there is reason to think Macedonian may have had more open pronunciation of short upsilon and iota. The simplest explanation for the dialect forms in the curse tablet is that it has been written in the original Macedonian dialect, and that that dialect is a West Greek one, related to, but distinct from its more southern neighbors…Three other, very brief, fourth century inscriptions are also indubitably Doric. These show that a Doric dialect was spoken in Macedon, as we would expect from the West Greek forms of Greek names found in Macedon.”

Consequently, the tablet was certainly not written by a non-Macedonian Greek, as it depicts a form of Greek that was previously unattested. Its vocabulary is compatible not only with the Macedonian glossaries previously discussed, but also the form of Greek reflected in the names of the Macedonians. In the absence of further evidence, the vast majority of historians and linguists have concluded that the curse tablet is indeed written in ancient Macedonian and that the native tongue of Alexander was a form of Doric Greek. Since its discovery, even Eugene Borza, renown as the one eminent historian who is not convinced that the Macedonians were Greek, has stated that a “curse tablet from a “common” burial at Pella strengthens the case that the use of Greek was not necessarily limited to the hellenized upper class…it now appears that the use of the written Greek language may have been more widespread at an earlier date than previously known.”

Koine Greek

Ancient Macedonian eventually became extinct following the conquests of Alexander and it was replaced by Koine Greek. This is significant, as Koine did not replace Egyptian, Persian, Afghan or any of the non-Greek languages that existed within the Macedonian Empire. Koine only became the language of the masses in locations that were previously Greek speaking. This is presumably because it was sufficiently similar to the language that they were already speaking. The fact that it was adopted by the Macedonians at the expense of their own dialect would suggest that it was easily learned and not too far removed from ancient Macedonian.

Livy

The Roman historian Livy makes three references to the Macedonians speaking Greek during the Roman period, and these could refer to either ancient Macedonian or Koine Greek. According to Livy, a Macedonian ambassador at the Aetolian Confederacy called the Romans “foreigners who are separated from us to a greater distance by their language, manners, and laws, than by the distance by sea and land.” This undeniably demonstrates that the Macedonians shared language and nationality with the Aetolians, who were Greek speakers. Livy also states “Aetolians, Acarnanians and Macedonians, men speaking the same language.” Whilst the language in question could be Koine Greek, it is noteworthy that both the Aetolians and Acarnanians spoke Doric Greek and this could therefore be the language in which they were conversing. Finally, Livy writes that a Roman proclamation in Macedon was “announced in Latin…[t]his announcement was translated into Greek and repeated by Gnaeus Octavius” for the assembled “crowd of Macedonians.” The purpose of this translation was to make the announcement understandable for the assembled Macedonians, it is simply implausible that Greek would have been the language of translation unless the Macedonians were Greek speakers. Nobody would ever translate an Italian announcement into German for an assembled crowd of Russians to understand.

The Language of FYROM

Ancient Macedonian, along with all other forms of Greek besides Tsakonian, fused into Koine Greek which eventually transformed into the modern Greek spoken by the Greeks of Macedonia today. The Slavic language spoken in FYROM is completely unrelated, despite the misleading name being applied to it. Johannes Engels states that “ancient Macedonian has no relationship with modern Macedonian” and the language classification website “MultiTree” warns that “Ancient Macedonian / Greek Macedonian” is “[n]ot to be confused with the modern Macedonian language, which is a close relative of the Slavic Bulgarian.” There are hundreds of 19th and early 20th sources which testify that this language was known as Bulgarian prior to the emergence of the FYROMians as a separate people from the Bulgarians. Some sources proving as such are:

  • The Yorkshire Herald, September 17th, 1890: “Bulgarian is not only the dominant, but, it may also be said, the universal tongue of the whole Christian, and part of the Moslem, population of Northern Macedonia.”
  • Paul Mall Gazette, November 11, 1880: “Perlepe (Modern day Prilep) is the first large Bulgarian centre where the Bulgarian tongue is almost exclusively spoken.”
  • St. James’s Gazette, October 5, 1885: “Through Uskub of the Turks or Scopia of the Servians. In this district the Bulgarians and Servian languages blend.”
  • Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania, Edward Lear (1851): “French, German and Italian are useless, and Modern Greek nearly as much if you travel higher than Macedonia: Bulgarian, Albania, Turkish and Sclavonic are your requisites in this Babel.”
  • Encyclopedia Britannica (1824): “There are five languages spoken in Greece at the present day: 1. The Turkish, 2. The Bulgarian, 3. The Wallachian, 4. The Albanian, 5. The Romaic or Modern Greek.
  • Researches in Greece, Part 1, William Martin Leake (1814): “The Christians, who speak the Bulgarian dialect, extending from thence, with scarcely any interruption, through all the Northern part of Macedonia proper.”
  • Reports of the Immigration Commission – Volume 1, United States. Immigration Commission (1911): “Some pro-Servians would claim Macedonia and the greater part of Turkey, even to the Black Sea, to be Servian by language; while it is generally held that the Slavic language found here is Bulgarian.”
  • Julius Landmann, The Swiss Banking Law: Study and Criticism of the Swiss Legislation (1908) – “In the village (Monastir) we speak the language I am speaking now — Bulgarski.”
  • Allen Upward, The East End of Europe (1908): “I asked what language they spoke and my Greek interpreted carelessly rendered the answer Bulgare. The man himself had said Makedonski…And so the Bulgarophone villagers are no longer willing to admit they speak Bulgarian. They have coined a new term of their own accord, and henceforth their dialect, until they have got rid of it, is to be known as ‘Macedonian’.”
Excerpt from Allen Upward’s “The East End of Europe.”

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